Joel Salatin (aka Chicken Man), Author of Pastured Poultry Profits, writes about the pros and cons of U.S. government poultry processing regulations.
Legislation Protecting Small-Scale Poultry Producers
One of the early poultry processing laws in the U.S. was passed by Congress in 1957. The Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) requires that any poultry intended to be sold to the public be slaughtered in a U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved facility. PL90-492 (Public Law 90-492) is an amendment to the act that clarifies and details aspects of the act. The PPIA was passed at a point when large-scale chicken production was burgeoning, and the Federal Meat Inspection Act — administered by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) — was expanding rapidly, crippling many small-scale chicken producers.
PL90-492 includes specific exemptions for small-scale producers, known as “producer-growers,” who process 20,000 or fewer head of poultry per year. This exemption is the secret sauce that’s fueled the entire pastured broiler movement in the U.S., including the success of our Polyface Farm. Without it, we would be a very different place. In a way, it’s like a federal exemption for raw milk sales.
Specifics of the Federal Law
There are several specific parts of the PL90-492 exemptions of which small-scale producers should be aware. Chickens must be processed in a “sanitary and unadulterated manner” and they must carry the PL90-492 exemption on the label. You can process fewer than 1,000 birds per year without any oversight.
What’s the difference between “oversight” and “inspection”? A lot. Inspection means not
only licensing, but a real time inspector on the floor looking at every chicken. It’s a very specific thing. Custom outfits, for example, have far more requirements (oversight) than PL90-492 facilities, but they do not have inspection of any kind. If you process fewer than 1,000 birds, you don’t have to worry about either oversight or inspection, but are still governed by the PL90-492 exemptions. If you have 1,000 – 19,999 birds, you are subject to oversight. In other words, a livestock official could inspect you, but it’s not required. If you have 20,000 birds or more, your facility must be inspected.
Additionally, PL90-492 confines sales to end users: individuals, hotels, restaurants, and institutions. In other words, the birds can’t be sold to someone who resells them in an uncooked condition. Wherever you send a bird, it has to walk out of there in someone’s stomach. For example, you could sell the chicken to a grocery store deli to be made into a sandwich, but not to the meat counter to be sold as a whole carcass.
While PL90-492 allows you to cut up, part out, and grind poultry, it doesn’t allow you to cook it, add anything to it, or mix it with any other ingredient. There are advantages to being able to part out or grind carcasses. For instance, this allows us to grind turkeys with a blemish (perhaps a disjointed leg or broken wing) and sell it as ground turkey. People pay big money for that, and we can generally recoup the entire value of the turkey plus labor by offering this product.
The law does specifically prohibit interstate sales, but it doesn’t prohibit interstate transfer. If you simply deliver across the state line, that’s legal under an aggressive interpretation of the law. What you can’t do is take an unsold bird across the state line. If the sale occurs in state, however, an out-of-state customer can bring the chicken to their home; or you can deliver it to them.
State versus Federal
As is typical with many laws, states have the option to be more restrictive in implementing and overseeing legislation, depending on what they think is best for their state. This means that you really have to keep track of how your state has implemented PL90-492. About 28 states simply stamped the federal regulations into state law. But the other states have imposed more rigorous restrictions on the number of birds you own in order to qualify for an exemption. Some states say that if you sell more than 1,000 birds, you aren’t considered a producer- grower, but rather a commercial producer.
Some states have imposed onerous infrastructure requirements. Here at Polyface Farms, we’ve battled Virginia state regulators several times over where we process, how we process, and for whom we process. These are battles that we’ve won, but not without emotional and financial cost.
One of our former apprentices ran into regulatory headwinds in Oregon. Even under PL90-492, state regulators required impermeable walls and covered windows for his small-scale operation. The regulations didn’t say how tall the walls needed to be, nor how small the windows. So he built 8-inch walls and put sliding patio doors on them. What could they say?
Another fellow in Ohio dealt with the same problem. He solved it by building a hoop house. When the inspectors came, they were not pleased, but he sprayed a water hose against the hoop house plastic and proved it was impermeable. Case closed, permission granted. My point here is to encourage you to not take the orthodoxy as gospel.
Because state laws and interpretations vary dramatically, I encourage everyone contemplating diving into this enterprise to join the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF) in order to get timely legal counsel for a specific area. Since this is what FTCLDF does, their attorneys have the information at their fingertips and don’t have to waste time finding answers. This small but mighty organization has probably done more to protect food choice in America than any other outfit. They deserve our support.
Probably the biggest ambiguity in the federal law is the statement “sanitary and unadulterated.” What, exactly, does that mean? We’d been operating for several years when the old commissioner retired and a new guy took over. He visited us, and I’ll never forget his blanket statement: “outdoor processing is inherently unsanitary.” He said if one fly entered the processing area, the product was adulterated. I guess he’d throw away a hotdog at a picnic if a fly landed on it. We eventually won that battle, but not without a fight.
Battling the State
Realize that just because a bureaucrat tells you something, it’s not necessarily true. Again, we were told that our outdoor processing was illegal because it violated the sanitary and unadulterated portions of the law. Fortunately, prior to this battle, we had submitted our chicken to a bacteria test head-to-head with the chlorinated variety in the supermarket. The federally inspected birds cultured an average 3,600 colony forming units of bacteria per milliliter to the second permutation (and I’ve already told you way more than I understand) and ours cultured 136, making them 25 times cleaner than the supermarket variety.
Proving Our Method
When we had our showdown with the state regulators, they were in a bit of a pickle to impugn our sanitation when we had empirical data showing their inspected birds were 25 times dirtier. That said, nothing about home or small-scale processing ensures cleanliness and safety. It’s not about scale; it’s about protocol.
Interestingly, pheasants are not poultry, according to the USDA. So you can process as many of them as you want without any regulations. In a hilarious case of twisted math, Kansas inserted, for the sake of comparison, that a turkey would be considered one-quarter of a chicken. The state restricted the number to 5,000 chickens for small-scale operations. Under the letter of the law, you can process 5,000 chickens, or 20,000 turkeys, each of which is only counted as a one-quarter of a chicken. The state really meant that a turkey should be counted as 4 times as much volume as a chicken, or a chicken counted as 25 percent of a turkey, but the current regulation inverted the ratio. Beware of bureaucratic math.
Clean Spaces and Birds
Potable water, clean working surfaces, cleansing the carcass of manure during evisceration, and getting the bird under 40 degrees Fahrenheit within two hours are all critical components of safety. In processing plants, the ambient temperature runs 50 degrees. But in the outdoors or locations that aren’t temperature-controlled, we generally work in regular summer ambient temperatures. The longer the bird sits with entrails inside, waiting to be eviscerated and chilled, the more likely that bacteria will grow.
Don’t let those chickens stack up waiting to be eviscerated or checked over (quality control) before going in the chill water. We use a double chill system, whereby they go into an initial cool bath without ice for 10 to 15 minutes. This water turns pink with little bits of blood and debris. But it means when the birds go into the ice water chill vat, that water stays much cleaner. From kill to that final chill should be less than 30 minutes, and ideally no more than 15.
Labeling is a huge issue for anyone attempting an unorthodox product. Too many people get bogged down in label claims. While you have to meet the PL 90-492 labeling requirements, my advice is not to make any other claims on your labels. Keep your description minimal. Instead, create a stripped-down generic label: young chicken, stewing hen, turkey. Use your social media and other messaging to describe and market your poultry. By and large, people in the pastured poultry business are not selling due to a label; they’re selling because somebody heard and bought into their story. If you’re depending on a label to sell your product, you’re probably wasting your time.
Keep Current and Get Going
Right now, it appears that FTCLDF has secured the freedom to collaborate in selling PL90-492 chicken. In other words, two farmers could partner as independent PL90-492 growers and sell under one brand. This is a breakthrough in our small-scale producer movement, and opens up lots of opportunities for scaling up. The birds still can’t be sold across state lines, but being able to create a brand that can grow is extremely positive.
Don’t wait for regulations to catch up to your ideas. Raise chickens, and test out how you might want to proceed with a small-scale producer-grower business. Getting a couple of broiler batches under your belt can go a long way in helping you determine if this is really something you want to do. Processing is the Achilles heel of the pastured broiler model. It’s the bottleneck. Production is easy; no regulations. But processing is another story.
Be assured that these regulations have nothing to do with food safety. That’s their purported reason, of course, but in the end, they really define infrastructure and paperwork, not final result. So, at the risk of inciting criminal activity, I encourage people to just start. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Nobody is going to give you a fine or take you to jail for an ancillary backyard trial of a few hundred chickens. What I’m getting at is that you don’t need to seek permission and the blessing of bureaucrats before trialing some processing.
In closing, I’m not an attorney and don’t hold my experiences as legal counsel. That’s why I promote FTCLDF. What I’ve shared here is our own experience, plus my working knowledge of the PL90-492 exemption. Don’t take it as legal counsel. As imperfect as it may be, PL90-492 is our ticket to pastured poultry entrepreneurship, and I wish it were extended to everything, from milk and cheese to pot pies, pigs, and charcuterie. Maybe someday.
Joel Salatin took over his parents’ 550-acre farm in 1982 and now runs Polyface Farms. He regularly writes and speaks about nitty-gritty how-to for profitable regenerative farming, as well as cultural philosophy on farming and life. You can follow Joel on his blog.